Edgar Box: Death in the Fifth Position (1952)

As Gore Vidal tells the story in the foreword to the 2011 Vintage edition of this book, he had a couple of problems back in the early 1950s. One was that he’d antagonized a powerful book critic for the New York Times, with the result that the newspaper was not reviewing his books. This led to lower sales, which led to problem number two: lack of money! A friend suggested he turn his hand to writing mystery novels under a pen name, and shortly Edgar Box was born. His literary career lasted for three novels, of which Death in the Fifth Position is the first.

All three Box books star Peter Cutler Sargeant II, a New York public-relations specialist. In this one, the Grand St. Petersburg Ballet hires him to do damage control after choreographer Jed Wilbur is outed as a Communist and their new production is threatened with protests if Wilbur is not fired. Things get complicated when one of the troupe’s dancers takes a death plunge to the stage during a performance, and Inspector Gleason of the NYPD fixes on replacement dancer (and Sargeant’s love interest) Jane Garden as the suspect. There’s more killing and assorted intrigue before Sargeant figures out who the real murderer is.

Vidal had already published several novels before Edgar Box made his debut, and he knew how to keep the reader interested. As a story about show business, the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Sargeant’s love life, it’s entertaining; in fact, I sometimes found myself wishing we could get past the murder-investigation parts and back to what I (and Vidal, I suspect) thought were the really interesting parts.

As a mystery? Sadly, it’s one of those full-length novels where the whole thing turns on a single clue that was mentioned exactly once. Technically fair, but if you’re going for longer than Encyclopedia Brown length, you’d better have more backing up your solution, or make sure the clue is utterly brilliant. Neither of those is the case here. I closed the book more annoyed than anything else, and I won’t be going out of my way to hunt down the other Box novels.

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A.A. Fair: The Count of 9 (1958)

I’ve said it before: Erle Stanley Gardner* is not my favourite mystery writer. I have rarely closed a Perry Mason, D.A. or Cool & Lam novel thinking “Awesome solution! Should have seen that one coming!” It’s happened from time to time, but on the whole his final chapters have me reacting more along the lines of “Yeah, I guess that all holds together, even if I’m not quite sure how Perry/Doug/Donald got onto it.”

That said, I recently came across a copy of Hard Case Crime’s reprint of the Cool & Lam novel The Count of 9 (also published as The Count of Nine), and I knew I had to read it. Why? Well, the back cover promises not only the usual shenanigans you get from A.A. Fair (Bertha Cool takes on a new client, Bertha messes up, Donald Lam has to pull her out of the sheep-dip, and then it all gets complicated), but something you don’t expect from him: “AN IMPOSSIBLE MURDER…”

Now, Gardner isn’t exactly Mr. Howdunit, but he’d written in the sub-genre before this book. His novella “The Clue of the Runaway Blonde” has a pretty good no-footprints killing, and I’m sure there are others, if only because the man was so darn prolific. On the other hand, I’d been burned before: I once had a first edition of The Case of the Queenly Contestant that promised the reader a locked-room mystery, and the book just didn’t have one. Not Gardner’s fault, of course, but I was prepared for another disappointment when I opened my copy of Count. 

And you know? It has an impossible murder, and it’s not bad, not bad at all. Probably a B or B-plus. Unlike most John Dickson Carr novels, where the characters are blown away by how impossible the impossibility is, the plot of this one is set up so that most of the characters don’t even think there is one; rather, as in The Judas Window, it looks as if X and only X could have done it, which makes Sergeant Sellers of the LAPD very happy because that means he can make an arrest. Since Donald believes in X’s innocence, he has to (a) show that X didn’t do it and (b) figure out who did, and how. That is, when he’s not getting beaten up, hassled by cops, or dealing with all the other stuff A.A. Fair typically throws at him.

And a pretty good job he does; his answer would not seem at all out of place in a case of H.M.’s or Dr. Sam Hawthorne’s. I do have one criticism of the solution, which I will put in rot-13 to avoid spoiling anything: gur zrgubq vf cerggl tbbq, ohg gur vqragvgl bs gur zheqrere frrzf neovgenel. “Urer’f ubj vg pbhyq unir orra qbar, abj jub qvq vg?… Bxnl, gung thl.”

So if you like A.A. Fair to begin with, here’s one of his books and it’s up to the usual standard. If you’re looking for an impossible crime to solve and you don’t mind it in the form of a first-person private-eye novel (and why should you?), check this one out.

*Everyone’s up to speed on how A.A. Fair is a pen name of Gardner’s, right?

Bill Pronzini: Hoodwink (1981)

In earlier decades, Russell Dancer was a well-known pulp writer. Today (i.e. around 1980 or so) he’s barely getting by, writing pseudonymous action novels when he’s not in a drunken stupor. When he invites the Nameless Detective* to a pulp convention, it’s not just because he knows Nameless collects the old magazines; someone has accused Dancer of plagiarism and threatened him with extortion, and he wants the sleuth to find out who. Things get more complicated as Nameless starts to make inquiries, and soon enough one of the convention guests is found murdered in a room locked from the inside. Dancer, drunk and unconscious, is also in the room, so there’s no mystery if he’s the killer, but if he isn’t…

And I haven’t even got to the second impossible murder.

The Nameless Detective mysteries are a mixed bag for me. Nameless himself is a character squarely in the tradition of other private eyes who tell their stories in the first person, and his first few recorded cases have a lot more in common with Chandler or Ross Macdonald than with Christie or Carr. But Pronzini had a mind for constructing fair-play puzzles, and by the time he wrote Hoodwink (seventh in a series that would eventually total 46 books), Nameless was getting to solve some of them. The series would continue to be unpredictable as to whether the new one was going to be a deductive puzzle or something else. Not surprisingly, I prefer the books of the former type.

And this is a really good one. The solution to the first locked room is worthy of John Dickson Carr; as in The Judas Window, it seems the guy who was locked in with the victim has to be guilty, but the actual solution is quite simple and clever. If the answer to the second impossibility isn’t quite in that category, it’s at least as good as what you’d find in an average Dr. Sam story. And the rest of the story is a lot of fun to read, both as a love letter to the pulp era and as a few hours spent with a colorful group of suspects. I don’t know about the other writer characters, but Russell Dancer is supposedly based on a real-life pulp writer named Gil Brewer, who eventually drank himself to death. Pronzini wrote an article about Brewer that’s available here.

As the Nameless series goes on, the character evolves and his life goes through the same kinds of phases as a real person’s, but you don’t have to read them in order to understand what’s going on. If he’s new to you, this would be a good one to start with.

*He has a name in-universe, but the readers are never told what it is. (Well, he does get called “Bill” in one book… and I suspect if he had a last name, it would be Pronzini. Still, he’ll always be known to the fans as the Nameless Detective.)

More Things Impossible by Edward D. Hoch (2006) (Part 1)

First of a two-part look at More Things Impossible, the second collection of short stories about Dr. Sam Hawthorne, the New England country doctor who solved impossible crimes from the 1920s to the 1940s. This and the next three books in this five-book series contain fifteen stories each; we’ll look at the first eight here. They were originally published between 1978 and 1983.

“The Problem of the Revival Tent”

What seems to happen: Boy faith-healer Toby Yester and his entourage make Northmont the latest stop on their sawdust trail. Dr. Sam, who doesn’t care for competition, decides to switch from solving murders to committing them.

Okay, I’m kidding. What really seems to happen: Dr. Sam is alone with Toby’s father in the crusade’s tent when someone stabs the latter to death. 

Not a great one to start off with, as the solution is pretty obvious. And we know Dr. Sam’s in no danger of arrest, since he has to be back to solve the next case.

“The Problem of the Whispering House”

What seems to happen: Dr. Sam and a professional ghost-hunter watch a man walk into a room with no other ways in or out. When they enter the room, the man’s been knifed to death, and the killer is absent.

There’s a lot more to this story than the brief synopsis above, and almost all of it is good – but I found the secret of the impossible murder was the one letdown.

“The Problem of the Boston Common”

What seems to happen: While Dr. Sam is attending a medical convention in Boston, people walking across the famous Common are suddenly collapsing in death. Examination shows they’ve been poisoned, but how?

The first story in this collection to really score, with a clever murder method and a surprise killer.

“The Problem of the General Store”

What seems to happen: Maggie Murphy and Max Harkner are alone in his general store when someone kills him with a blast from a shotgun. Maggie swears she didn’t do it, but all the doors and windows are locked from the inside.

Another good one, with a genuine damn-it-I-should-have-seen-that moment when Dr. Sam explains all. 

“The Problem of the Courthouse Gargoyle”

What seems to happen: Dr. Sam is sitting on a jury when the presiding judge takes a fatal sip from a glass of poisoned water that no one could have come near.

And another good one. Maybe this “another good one” business is getting monotonous, but it’s for the right reasons. 

“The Problem of the Pilgrims (sic) Windmill”

What seems to happen: A man is murderously attacked while he’s inside a windmill, but both his testimony and the evidence of footprints in the snow outside say there was no one else there.

Pretty good, but not the first time I’ve seen this method used in a story. One thing I don’t understand is why a windmill traditionally associated with the Pilgrims wasn’t called the Pilgrim’s Windmill or the Pilgrims’ Windmill. The story introduces Dr. Lincoln Jones, a black doctor, and it’s a little jarring to have him repeatedly referred to as as “black” instead of the (non-insulting) words Dr. Sam and everyone else would really have been using in 1929.

“The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat”

What seems to happen: Four people are aboard a houseboat that’s under observation. When the boat starts to drift and Dr. Sam boards the craft to see what’s going on, nobody’s on board, even though they couldn’t have left without being seen doing so.

This Mary Celeste story with an impossible-crime twist is yet another in a string of good ones. The perpetrator, once exposed, is one of Hoch’s more memorable characters.

“The Problem of the Pink Post Office”

What seems to happen: The day of the 1929 stock-market crash, an envelope containing a $10,000 negotiable bond disappears from the Northmont post office. Everyone who was in the place at the time is searched, along with the post office itself, but the bond does not turn up.

Dr. Sam admits he’s being a bit of a show-off in this story, and so is Hoch: no fewer than seven possible solutions are offered and dismissed before we get to the true one. And it’s pretty good.

So there you have the first eight stories in the collection. So far, the average is a lot better than in Diagnosis: Impossible, the previous book in the series. But will the second half be as good? Stay tuned…

John Dickson Carr: The Crooked Hinge (1938) – this review contains spoilers!

Warning! While this review does not name the murderer in The Crooked Hinge, it does give away the book’s big secret. If you haven’t read it yet, proceed no further!

Twenty-six years before the story begins, a boy named John Farnleigh was a passenger on the doomed Titanic. He survived the disaster and continued his journey to America, where his parents were shipping him off to live with a relative. He returned to England in 1935 when he inherited his older brother’s baronetcy and estate. Now, though, a certain Patrick Gore has turned up, claiming to be the real John Farnleigh. The two of them, he says, switched identities as the ship was sinking, and the fake Farnleigh tried to seal the deal by knocking him out and leaving him for dead. While Gore makes a convincing circumstantial case, hard evidence is needed, and there is a man who can provide it: Kennet Murray, who has a set of the boy’s fingerprints, taken before he sailed off. In keeping with the expectations of a mystery reader, a dead body soon turns up on the Farnleigh estate… but it is not Murray who’s been killed…

Much as there is to like about The Crooked Hinge, at base I consider it one of Carr’s misfires, a failure as a fair-play mystery. (Kind of the reverse of The Cavalier’s Cup, which has a fair puzzle but practically nothing else going for it.)

Why am I being so hard on TCH? Well, if you’ve read it, you know that a certain character turns out not to have any legs, which has allowed him to pass himself off as different people of varying heights with the help of artificial legs of different lengths. It also helped him when it came time to kill his victim. Carr prepares us for the revelation by telling us that this character’s walk is a bit clumsy.

To paraphrase a certain cartoon horse: No, sir, I don’t believe it. Specifically, I don’t believe that, with the medical technology available in 1938, a double leg amputee could walk, unaided, well enough that no one who saw him would suspect he didn’t have his original legs. Telling us his walk is “a bit clumsy” is not a fair description of what someone in his situation would look like trying to walk without a cane or crutch. Of course, we’ve come a long way since then, but it’s worth noting that the artificial legs of today that allow a double amputee to move about gracefully do so at the expense of looking anything like a natural leg… so this trick wouldn’t work even today.

I concede that someone who had two amputations below the knee might pull the trick off, but “I have no legs” indicates to me that far more of the original legs were destroyed.

Before the final revelations, there is an Ellery Queen-esque penultimate chapter where Dr. Fell presents us with a false solution, complete with a false murderer and a false method for committing the crime. I admit I had decided on this character and method before reading this chapter… but all the same, I think TCH would have been a stronger work if they’d turned out to be correct!

(By the way, remember the final chapter of The Eight of Swords – no spoiler here if you have not read that one – where a character says “The public will only glance at this chapter, to make sure it hasn’t been cheated by having evidence withheld”? I think Carr was afraid a lot of readers would do that with TCH and never get to the real solution, so he had viewpoint character Brian Page think, “This case is not finished” as a way of encouraging them to keep going.)

There are some other criticisms to make: Page is practically a cipher, someone to stand around while everyone else says and does things; his girlfriend Madeline Dane is also kind of blah; and the business of the Golden Hag is one of those subplots whose main function seems to be to pad the story out to book length. But the central gimmick, being unworkable, is far and away TCH‘s most serious flaw. It’s a tribute to Carr’s skill as a writer that I found it an enjoyable read, and reread, anyway… and that I still rate it higher than some of his other books.

Banacek: Season Two (Part 2)

Wrapping up our look back at the brief but colourful career of Thomas Banacek, solver of impossible thefts. The previous instalments are here, here and here.

Unfortunately the final four episodes include only one gem, plus two so-so outings and one that gets a failing grade. I have been told by a commenter here that George Peppard quit doing the series because of a divorce he was going through, but if the show was running out of steam anyway, maybe it was just as well it ended when it did. 

“Horse of a Slightly Different Color” by Harold Livingston (who also wrote a lot of Mission: Impossible episodes) and Jimmy Sangster

What seems to happen: Oxford Don, a thoroughbred insured for $5 million, begins his morning run while being filmed. When the run is over, the jockey is now sitting on a different and far less valuable horse.  

Like “The Vanishing Chalice” from earlier in the season, this one has an audacious opening and a vanishing (or substitution) method that I don’t believe could work.

“Rocket to Oblivion” by Robert Van Scoyk

What seems to happen: In a teaser that would have delighted the heart of Charlie Chan, an experimental rocket engine weighing 600 pounds is on display in a transparent case at a trade show when the lights cut out for a few seconds. When they come back on, guess what’s no longer in the case?

If you don’t figure this one out once you’ve sifted the clues, consider your amateur detective’s badge revoked!

“Fly Me – If You Can Find Me” by Harold Livingston

What seems to happen: A jetliner, carrying a flight crew but no passengers, develops engine trouble and has to put down at a rural airport. The crew all go to a local hotel for the night, leaving one of the pilots on guard. When they come back in the morning, the plane is gone, even though it could not have been repaired, towed away or taken apart during the night. Oh, and the pilot’s been killed. 

A very clever solution, and it’s a shame this one wasn’t the last Banaeck instead of…

“Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” by Stanley Roberts

What seems to happen: There’s a warrant out for the arrest of magician Bradley Merrick, who goes onstage one last time to perform his famous escape from a locked trunk. As it turns out, he’s not only escaped from the trunk, he’s escaped from the theatre, even though all the exits were guarded.

The only one of the 17 Banaceks that has a solution that does not play fair with the viewer, which left a very bad taste in my mouth when I first watched it. Seriously, if you’re going to buy the DVDs and watch the series, get this one out of the way and save one of the good ones for last. There are plenty of those – and this is not a show where the order in which you watch the episodes matters.

Banacek: Season Two (Part 1)

Continuing our look at TV’s impossible-crime specialist of the early 1970s. Entries on Season One are here and here.

“No Stone Unturned” by Stephen Lord, Robert Van Scoyk, Lee Santley and George Sheldon Smith.

What seems to happen: a three-ton statue disappears from the art gallery where it was about to be unveiled, even though nobody could have come near it with the kind of equipment needed to move (or destroy) it. 

Like last season’s “The Two Million Clams of Cap’n Jack”, this episode has a surprisingly large number of people sharing writer credit, and like “Cap’n Jack,” it’s a really good one. The solution is both ingenious and fairly clued. I also have to give my younger brother full marks on this one; he was able to spot how it was done when I couldn’t. At age ten. Sometimes I hate my younger brother. 

“If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?” by Robert van Scoyk.

What seems to happen: a supercomputer disappears from a locked, guarded building overnight. 

You can tell this episode was written during the era of movies like “I Could Never Have Sex With Any Man Who Has So Little Regard For My Husband” and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”. The solution is not a bad one, but somehow I found it a letdown.

“The Three Million Dollar Piracy” by Stanley Ralph Ross, Robert Van Scoyk (this guy got around, didn’t he?) and Jack Turley.

What seems to happen: A coach (the kind drawn by horses), studded with valuable jewels, is packed in a protective crate and loaded into the hold of a ship. When the crate is inspected before the ship can sail off, the coach is gone, and the only clue is a hole burned into the side with a blowtorch – one far too small for the coach to have gone through.

Another very good one, with some great misdirection. You can usually find a similarity between a Banacek solution and at least one story written earlier, but the mechanics of this one actually remind me of a later mystery written by an author who knows his way around an impossible crime. I won’t be any more specific than that!

“The Vanishing Chalice” by Morton Fine.

What seems to happen: As in last season’s “A Million the Hard Way”, something valuable is on public display and in full view of lots of people. When they all take their eyes off it for a brief moment, it disappears.

Not a good one. I don’t believe for a moment that the method could work, although the identity of the culprit was well-concealed.

To be concluded with the last four Banaceks in due course!